Vietnam’s official language is Vietnamese, a tonal language spoken as a mother tongue by 90% the country’s population. Vietnamese is written using a 29 letter alphabetical system. However, the accent of Vietnamese varies from province to province. Besides Vietnamese, around 50 other languages are spoken by ethnic minorities. English is a popular foreign language and is used in most offices, restaurants… in big cities or tourism places. French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese… are also popular and can be found in tourist places.
Vietnamese: Vietnamese belongs to the Austro-Asiatic language group. It is mother tongue to nearly 85% of the country’s population and an additional 3 million Vietnamese living abroad and is the 17th most spoken language in the world (Ethnologies estimate 2005).
The language is most closely related to Khmer but is heavily influenced by Chinese and somewhat influenced by French. It is a mono syllabic language.
Tones: Vietnamese seems complicated to foreigners because it is mono syllabic and has six different tones. Hence, sounds that are slightly different will have totally different meaning. The 6 tones of Vietnamese are:
Level: ba (three/dad)
High rising: bá (to hug)
Low falling: bà (grandmother)
Dipping- rising: bả (poison)
High rising glottalized: bã (trash)
Low glottalized: bạ (random)
Dialects: Vietnamese is spoken differently depending on geographic location. Each region and province has its distinct dialect. Even though grammatical differences are negligible, Vietnamese varies greatly in tone, accents and even vocabulary. For example, “ch” and “tr” sounds are distinct in the South but are merged by Northerners. The Hanoi accent is considered the “standard” Vietnamese.
Writing: Many find it surprising that Vietnamese is written by Latin letters. Vietnamese used to be written based on a complicated Siniform script that was based heavily on Chinese; hence was not popular.
During the 17th century, Roman Catholic missionaries introduced a Latin-based orthography for Vietnamese, Quốc Ngữ (national language) with 29 letters and is now used widely and officially.
Other minority languages:
Vietnam has 53 other ethnic groups besides Viet (making up nearly 10% of the population, many living in mountainous areas), each with their own languages. 24 even have a written form. A few popular languages besides Vietnamese are:
Chinese: spoken by Ethnic Chinese immigrants who have settled in Vietnam during the last 300 years, living mainly in big cities and provincial towns.
Muong: spoken by the Muong ethnic group inhabiting the Northern mountainous regions of Vietnam.
It is not necessary to know these languages when visiting places with ethnic minorities, as Vietnamese is a common language used between groups.
Languages you speak:
English is the most popular foreign language in Vietnam and is taught is school. Many people speak English and information in English can be found easily in big cities such as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh; and growing tourist places such as Da Nang or Nha Trang. Guides in English are usually offered.
French and Russian are fairly popular, especially in Northern Vietnam.
Japanese, Korean and Chinese are also growing in popularity. Tours in these languages are also possible depending on location and agency.